The Rise of the Spanish Telenovela

From Ugly Betty to Jane the Virgin, the genre of the telenovela has been popular in the English-speaking world for nearly two decades. The tropes that are often labelled as trashy and cheesy have resulted in the successes of series in Latin America and the ridiculous twists and turns prove for dramatic and often comedic viewing. However, up until recently, shows from Spain have not resulted in the same paramount as the South American telenovela. So why, all of a sudden, have these Spanish shows been receiving such worldwide reception in the past year?

One success story is the Madrid-set series Elite, a show about teenagers navigating life in a posh boarding school, filled with corruption, HIV and a tasty side of murder to top it all off. Indeed, it retains many telenovela tropes, such as the love triangle between a girl and two brothers and a never-ending whodunnit guessing game which is only solved in the last episode. Some may call it yet another classic teen show, but the critical acclaim, renewal of a second series and multiple articles with fan theories and recaps on Buzzfeed and Vice reveal Elite’s international scope. Until very recently, the only place where you would find a Spanish-speaking telenovela would be on TV, while English sitcoms have held prevalence over streaming websites like Netflix. However, some shows such as Elite, Las Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls) and Velvet have now been introduced to the platform, allowing a much wider spread to be reached.

Perhaps it is due to this new ease of accessing these foreign language shows that there has been a sudden influx in popularity; as a Netflix original, Elite holds a prime spot on the top of the website alongside massively popular shows such as Riverdale and The Haunting of Hill House which results in it being massively more appealing to audiences. Not only this, but it’s undeniable that the tropes which typically make up a telenovela are also present in English-speaking shows; massive, convoluted storylines with a murder mystery is a distinct recall to Pretty Little Liars, therefore whether believable or not, teens are attracted to it. This also begs the question: are telenovelas becoming sitcoms, or the opposite?

While adopting more American notions with a high-school setting and passion rife in each episode, Elite also offers the opportunity for international audiences to witness what life is like in Spain. Having been ruled by a dictator for thirty years, and stereotyped as a poor country, the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the characters questions the preconceived notions by offering an alternative which appears very normal. It uses these more Western qualities in order to remain relatable to audiences while demonstrating an interesting different culture, challenging the divide. In addition, with sitcoms becoming increasingly dramatic and incorporating taboo notions into storylines, the laughably cheesy telenovela is becoming blurred with shows that prove to be popular with American audiences. The Spanish interpretation of the classic sitcom has proven to be much more popular than the Latin American because of clever linking to preexisting popular shows, as well as audience demands for a fresh dramatic twist.

In what may be seen as the prime for internet streaming, the modern Spanish telenovela seems to have cracked the code for popularity; it offers a fresh vantage on the original sitcom conventions, and demonstrates the richness of the culture and history to audiences across the globe. With seasons being renewed and new shows released by Italian and French production companies, it seems a European revolution is coming to the TV world; a breath of fresh air from what is usually seen as comfortably American.